Newburgh, New York has always been a special place for my family. It is where my mom went to college, where my parents were married, where I was born, very near where my brother went to the Culinary Institute of America, where some relatives still reside, and where other relatives, including my Grammy, are laid to rest.
There is this tiny, little box of a Mexican restaurant in Newburgh where every Thursday is tamale day. You have to let them know in advance how many you will be ordering and when they're sold out, that's it. You have to wait until the next Thursday for another chance!
Perhaps this introduction to tamales fueled my belief that they are special. I knew them as something that was coveted, that were a lot of work, and definitely worth it in the end.
If I see tamales on the menu at an authentic Mexican restaurant, you better put money on the fact that I'm going to order at least one to try. There is something so poignant to me when I see this dish on a menu, moreso than any other dish. I know that the recipe is most likely a very old one, taught to the maker by their mom or grandma. I also know that it is a recipe of love, with so much time and hands-on work put into it. How can I help but want to try it?
Up until this point, I had never made my own tamales. It never even occurred to me, until I learned that my dad had been mastering the skill and I got to watch him this summer. Isn't it funny how watching somebody else do something makes it less scary and intimidating?
I visited a cramped Mexican grocery in a strip mall and purchased dried corn husks, masa, and lard. Then, I turned to the king of Mexican cooking, Rick Bayless, for recipe inspiration. I've never been one to follow recipes to a T, so I read through a variety of Rick's dough and filling recipes until I decided what I wanted to do with mine.
I set aside my own tamale day, since I knew I'd be in the kitchen for hours on end. Johnny was warned, I mentally prepared myself, and looked forward to it on the calendar with great anticipation and slight anxiety.
First, I started the filling, which consisted of the meat and sauce. I knew it had to simmer for a long time, so I wanted to get it set up and cooking so I could concentrate on other things.
3 oz. dried chiles (I used Anaheim)
8-10 cups water
2 tsp salt
~5 lbs pork (I just grabbed the cheapest cut available)
4 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp crushed black peppercorns
1/4 cup raisins
1 Tbsp lard
Begin by breaking the dried chiles open and removing the seeds and membrane. Then rip the chiles into large pieces and toast in the bottom of a dry, heavy-bottomed pan over high heat (I used my dutch oven). Press down with a metal spatula until the chile's skin begins to blister and darkens. It will start to smell like popcorn with a bit of a chile kick. Once the chiles are toasted, move them to a small bowl and cover with hot water. Place a small plate over the chiles to keep them submerged.
In a large pot (I continued to use my dutch oven), bring 8-10 cups of water to a boil. Meanwhile, cut the pork into 1" cubes. Add the salt and the pork to the water. For the first few minutes, use a large spoon to skim off any foam. Lower the heat to medium, partially cover the pot, and let the meat cook for 40 minutes, until it is really tender. Remove the meat to a large bowl with a slotted spoon, reserving the cooking liquid in another bowl.
Drain the chiles and put them in your food processor along with the garlic, cumin, pepper, and raisins. Add 2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid and blend until smooth. In the same large pot, over high heat, melt the lard. Transfer the chile mixture to the pot and add an additional 1 cup of reserved liquid. Stir to incorporate, and let the sauce sear and thicken for about 5 minutes, covering with a mesh splatter lid. Lower the heat and let the sauce continue to reduce for another 15 minutes.
While the sauce is thickening, shred the pork with your hands. Once done, add the sauce and stir. Set the filling aside until you're ready to make the tamales.
Clean out your kitchen sink and fill it with very hot water. Separate the dried corn husks and drop them into the water. Place a large plate or dish on top to keep them submerged. These will soak while we move onto the dough.
6 ears of fresh corn
8 cups masa
1 lb. lard
2 tsp salt
6 tsp baking powder
reserved cooking liquid from the meat
The above amounts are quadrupled. I made four smaller batches in the food processor, then transferred to a large bowl.
Begin by cutting the kernals off the corn. Then with the back of the knife or a spoon, scrape the ears to get the remainder of the kernals and sweet juice. Add to the food processor bowl and process until it's pureed. Add the remaining ingredients and run until it is a thick dough.
Once the four batches were in the large bowl, I used a hand mixture and slowly incorporated the remainder of the reserved cooking liquid (about 3-4 cups). The consistency will be like a thick cake batter.
Now you are finally ready to start filling!
Clear a large area on the counter or a table. Place the bowl of your dough, the bowl of your filling, and a steamer basket within reach. Grab a pile of the corn husks and wrap them in a kitchen towel, which you will also need within reach.
First, take a husk and pat it dry. With the thin side facing you, spoon about 3 Tbsp of the dough onto the husk. Smooth out until the masa is about 4" x 2". Next, spoon about 1 Tbsp of the filling down the center of the dough. Now, grab both sides of the husk and bring up and inwards so the masa touches and "seals" in the filling. Continue rolling the excess husk into a tight packet, then bring the thin end upwards into a fold. Place seam side down into a husk-lined steamer basket.
Repeat, repeat, repeat - until your steamer basket is full.
Place over boiling water, cover, and steam for 1 hour. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes for the dough to firm up a bit.
Two batches of baskets were steamed, resulting in a total of 71 tamales and 7 hours in the kitchen.
The excess tamales were wrapped individually in wax paper and placed in zip bags destined for the freezer. They will keep for several months and can be reheated quickly and conveniently for a quick snack, or a tasty dinner in no time!